Dana Herra Aug. 19, 2015, 10:04am

A former Chicago Public Schools building engineer who claims a CPS principal repeatedly targeted her with false accusations of criminal activity and other misdeeds will be allowed to continue with her retaliation lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Education.

U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall ruled Aug. 12 to deny the Board of Education of the City of Chicago’s motion for summary judgment in the action filed by Jessica Benuzzi, the former engineer-in-charge at the John J. Pershing Magnet School in Chicago.

The original lawsuit included allegations CPS violated her rights to equal opportunity employment, while engaging in discrimination and retaliation. An earlier court had dismissed the case, but, on appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment on the retaliation claims and remanded them for trial.

Benuzzi then amended her complaint to include additional retaliation claims, and the board filed its second motion for summary judgment, which was the subject of Gottschall’s ruling.

In Gottschall’s written opinion, she noted the Seventh Circuit had already determined the original claims of retaliation should be decided at trial, so summary judgment on those claims would not be appropriate.

“The [b]oard is not entitled to take a second bite at the apple by beginning the summary judgment process anew based on claims of retaliation that the Seventh Circuit has found are ripe for trial,” she wrote.

The claims of the lawsuit hinge on a clash of personalities between Benuzzi and the principal at the school during her employment there. The principal allegedly accused Benuzzi of theft when the two met, Gottschall wrote, and the tone was set for the rest of their relationship.

Following the Seventh Circuit’s ruling, Benuzzi and CPS are awaiting trial on several claims, including those focused on separate incidents in which Benuzzi was purportedly suspended for 15 days on accusations she used “verbally abusive language to or in front of students;” suspended without pay for 18 days for failing to respond to an email; denied the chance to interview for an open position for which she asserts she was the most qualified candidate; refused an annual evaluation; removed from the building after being accused of “snatching” a pen; and given notice of a pre-disciplinary hearing and required to vacate the building outside of the 15 minutes immediately preceding and following her shift.

Benuzzi has added claims the principal refused to let her interview for another, unspecified position, and that the principal supported another administrator who falsely accused Benuzzi of battering her with a door. Benuzzi was arrested and suspended without pay for more than a month in that incident. After the prosecutor dropped the battery charge, she was reinstated and given back pay. According to court documents, an eyewitness and the design of the door both exonerated Benuzzi, but she was suspended anyway.

Benuzzi also claimed her decision to retire early in 2012 was a means to escape “intolerable” working conditions and to avoid accusations that could lead to future criminal charges.

In her opinion, Gottschall wrote that none of the new claims are clear-cut enough for summary judgment. They present clear questions of material disputed fact best decided by a jury, she wrote.

Gottschall set a status hearing for Sept. 16 and noted both parties should be prepared to set firm trial and related dates.

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